An extract from Cucarachas or Cucuruchos? An English Teacher's Spanish Dilemma. Details below.
There’s quite a crowd surrounding Manuel as he bustles into the classroom this morning. What’s he got today? As usual, all the excited babble is in Spanish. I ease myself into a position to see above the bobbing heads. It’s a jam jar full of water. There’s something lurking at the bottom.
‘What have you got?’ I ask in a sing-song, Blue-Petery, early-in-the-day voice.
Manuel holds the jar aloft and shrugs. ‘I no no weet een eengleesh,’ he says, slightly crestfallen.
A nuclear weapon of noise explodes around him as everybody gives a view of what’s in Manuel’s treasure jar.
‘OK, OK,’ I say, in a slightly less Blue-Petery tone. ‘Let me have a look.’ It’s some kind of mollusc but I’ve no clue whether they’re cockles or mussels. I’ve some doubt whether they’re alive-alive-oh, given that Manuel’s had them captive for most of the weekend. Half a dozen of them are lurking in the murk at the bottom of the jar, each about the size of a butter bean.
I scan my mob for someone who might just have an edge over the others in matters mariscos. It’s not promising. I can hear lots of muttered suggestions, all of them muttered with 101% certainty, all of them different. I have to admit I’m not a big seafood eater, nor an eater of big seafood, so although I recognise many of the Spanish words, I couldn’t actually translate any of them into English.
‘You see ees lengua?’ Manuel points excitedly at a creamy-coloured tongue probing out from one that is still just about alive-alive-oh after all.
‘Very nice,’ I say. ‘Where did you get them?’
‘En la playa.’
‘In English, please.’ He must know this.
‘Da bitch!’ he says, proudly.
‘Yes, the beach. Were they in the sea?’
He looks confused. ‘Dey in da warder.’
‘In the sea.’ I emphasise ‘sea’ but Manuel ignores me.
‘My dad he coger dem but my mum she say you poot hems back but my dad he say ees OK I wanna traer thems to see you and my mum she gritar when all de warder it go on the silla in coche.’ I manage to turn that lot into news that there was a family row over whether he could bring them into school which reached a peak when Manuel spilled some of the water in the car...
‘Sounds like you had a lovely day out,’ I say, and notice the aptly named Mar (which means ‘sea’) smirking. She can have a level 4 for comprehension at the end of the year.
‘I’ll tell you what I’m going to do,’ I announce, before Manuel has a chance to let us all know whether the row escalated later on when he probably emptied them all out onto the living room carpet. ‘Miss Macarena knows a lot about these things so I’m just going to pop next door and ask her while you change your reading books.’
Everyone nods that Miss Macarena is a world expert on marine-life except Alma, who’s got her hand up and a worried look on her face. ‘What ees “pop”?’ she asks with a seriousness that is not normal for a seven-year-old.
‘Ummm, it means “go”,’ I say, hoping fervently that she doesn’t ask why...
‘Is almeja,’ la señorita Macarena says with calm certainty. Maybe she is a world expert on marine-life after all. ‘Bu- I no no weet een English.’
‘No matter,’ I say, pudging my phone with my index finger. ‘I’ve got a translator on this... clam! OK, thanks.’
‘Kwam?’ la señorita Mac says, looking for confirmation. I show her the screen and say, ‘Claaam,’ as clearly as I can. I can hear a bit of ‘noise’ from next door...
‘Right! I’ve got it,’ I bellow above the din as I stride back into my room. There’s no blood evident and no-one’s crying so I breeze on. ‘Come and sit down for the register and we can have a little talk about Manuel’s almejas, his clams!’
A dozen permutations of the word ‘clam’ ring out as the children settle down on the floor. Pablo and Paco are arguing about which of them said ‘almeja’ first. I fire up my (non-interactive) whiteboard and pop- sorry, put ‘almeja’ into wordreference.com. ‘Come and tell us about your clams!’ I beckon to Manuel who, as always, is thrilled to have a chance to chat to a willing audience.
I carefully steer him around the family row, which evidently did escalate when Manuel dropped one clam into his granny’s lap when they went for paella after their morning on da bitch. With a little prompting he manages to use words like ‘bucket’ and ‘paddle’ to describe the collecting process and the children have loads of suggestions about the best ways to cook them. Then I spot Alma with her hand up and a worried look on her face.
‘Yes, Alma,’ I say.
‘Ees cat?’ she asks, deadpan.
My brain goes on strike. I try to form my face into an ‘appropriate’ expression as I stare silently at her but the muscles have all gone into spasm.
‘Ees pussy cat?’ she continues, and I wonder if I should speak to her parents as soon as I’ve got some sensation back into my lips. It’s on the tip of my tongue to ask her why she’s asking such (bizarre) questions but that would only invite meltdown.
‘It’s a clam,’ I say, as kindly as I can.
She nods, then puts her hand up again. I give her the nod.
‘What ees “vah-hee-na”?’ she asks.
‘Vah-hee-na?’ I repeat.
‘Is that English?’ I ask. ‘Or Spanish?’
‘Ees English,’ she says, quietly. ‘And “fanny”?’
I feel my lower jaw dislocating from its mountings and bouncing a couple of times on my chest. She’s said it so clearly and perfectly, even stressing the first syllable as you do. Whenever you say it. If ever you say it... Fan-ny.
‘Wha- I, er, ummm, where did you hear that,’ I ask, trying to sound nonchalant, like she’s asked me what ‘horse’ means, or ‘frog’.
‘I read it,’ she says.
‘Where?’ I venture.
She points. At my whiteboard. For some spiteful reason my brain sends a cold shiver down my neck as I turn and look at word reference’s translation of almeja into clam. It’s a noun feminine, I see immediately, although I could have guessed that from the ‘a’ on the end. Then I notice a second translation underneath. This one is also a noun feminine, but crucially, it’s also colloquial. And vulgar.
‘Vah-hee-na!’ Manuel rolls it around his vocal chords. And, as I’ve taught them to do with new words, they all start saying it with varying intonations.
‘Ees vah-hee-na, or vah-gee-na?’ Pepa asks, and I regret bitterly having spent so much time showing them how an English ‘g’ makes a different sound in a word such as ‘got’ as opposed to ‘gee-gee’.
Wayne, my one British kid, has his hand up and I know for a fact he wants to tell everyone that an English ‘i’ rarely makes the Spanish ‘eee’ sound! From the evil glint in his eye I have a nasty suspicion that he also wants to provide us with a definition. But before I get the chance to shush him I notice the next translation of almeja. It’s ‘offensive’ apparently, in the UK at least.
For some reason I can’t quite fathom, this seems to be one of the few English words that Spanish kids can pronounce perfectly.
‘Fanny,’ Manuel says inquisitively, as if he’s trying to remember it so he can tell his dad (who’s also learning English) a new word this afternoon when he gets home. ‘What ees fanny?’
I pray la directora doesn’t wander in to collect the register which I haven’t even started.
‘Ees pussy,’ Alma says with great authority, pointing at the next translation. ‘Nice pussy.’
Then, I take one more glance at the list of translations for the Spanish word almeja and I see my career flash before my eyes, screaming wildly, and shouting ‘See you next Tuesday...’ The heat-induced sweat dribbling down my back is suddenly engulfed by a tsunami of the shock and stress-induced variety. I slam the laptop lid shut and yank the VGA lead out with a force that could move a fully-laden Jumbo jet along the runway at Heathrow.
‘What ees cu-‘ Alma starts, but I cut her dead.
‘I’ve got a wonderful surprise!’ I blurt, unsure of what I’m going to say next, but certain that it has to grab her attention away from what she might just have read on my whiteboard. ‘Ummmmm. We’re going to........ ummm, go out side- and- yes, have an extra playtime!’ I say the last two words with huge enthusiasm, like I’ve got a swimming pool full of ice-cream ready for them to dive into. This seems to do the trick; there is a monstrous roar of junior delight and a slight diminishing in the flow of sweat squirting out of my pores.
As I lead them out, dancing and hugging each other, I feel a tug on my shirt. It’s Alma. She has a worried look on her face.
‘What ees...’ she begins.
‘Why don’t you bring a skipping rope?’ I offer. I know she loves skipping. ‘We could play that game with the months when you have to jump in on your birthday?’ I know they all love that one. Alma looks torn. The birthday months skipping game, or that last ‘extra’ translation that she wants explained...
‘Tell you what, I’ll skip first,’ I offer.
‘Oh yes, Meesa Dee, you skeep too-‘ a whole gang of them start bellowing. And Alma is caught up with childish delight for something completely insignificant, all her thoughts about learning new words are erased, and my career survives a brush with Manuel’s clams...
An extract from Cucarachas or Cucuruchos: An English Teacher's Spanish Dilemma, eBook or paperback available from AMAZON. Click on the cover below for another free extract or to purchase.